Dan Romer, who led the study, is director of the Adolescent Communication Institute at the Annenberg Public Policy Center. In 2013, he found that among top-grossing films, the amount of violence in PG-13 movies had surpassed that of R-rated ones. His recent research shows that trend is gaining momentum.
If anything, it's going up. If you look at the trend, if you graph it, it's just a straight upward trajectory. It seems to be going higher than the R-rated films, with no end in sight. The PG-13 category has gotten increasingly violent and what used to be called R is today called PG-13.
The Frame's John Horn spoke with Romer about the implications of this research for the film rating system and for parents who use it.
On the rise of "consequence-less violence" in films:
It shows people being blown away by weapons, but not really being harmed. You don't see any of the suffering. You see no blood. So we worry that maybe a five- or six-year-old watching something like that could get the impression that these kinds of weapons wouldn't really be all that harmful. Now, someone who's older might have a different impression, but these films are open to anybody, with no supervision required. So we worry that it can really send the wrong impression. And we read all the time about kids being exposed to guns and using them.
On the desensitization of parents:
We have a study showing that if you show parents segments of these movies one at a time, after they've watched three or four of these, they begin to think it's not so bad, that one of their own kids could watch such a thing even if they're under 17. So the PG-13 category becomes even more plausible to a parent under these conditions ... The ratings board that the [Motion Picture Association of America] has is supposedly composed of parents, and they have to watch these things, and so we wonder if that doesn't lead to desensitization in the rating system itself.
On the possible relationship between violence on screen and in the real world:
I think it's very troubling. We have a huge gun problem in this country and when it becomes so widespread in the media — in films, television and elsewhere — I think it's very plausible in my mind that, especially if you don't show the consequences, make it look relatively harmless, it becomes more acceptable for people who might have malicious intent. When they watch these films, [they] think, Well, it works for those characters. It'll work for me too.
Editor's note: A spokesman for the MPAA, Chris Ortman, said in a statement that the ratings are evolving constantly: “This system has withstood the test of time because, as American parents’ sensitivities change, so too does the rating system. Elements such as violence, language, drug use, and sexuality are continually re-evaluated through surveys and focus groups to mirror contemporary concern and to better assist parents in making the right family viewing choices.”